Plural Singularities

Reviewed by Sneja Gunew

As Kevin Hart points out in his contribution to this collection, a scholarly scrutiny of M.G. Vassanji’s contribution to “the global literary scene” is long overdue. It is cause for celebration that this volume, the first in Canada to engage with M. G. Vassanji’s many and important writings, should appear. Noteworthy as well is the fact that it is published by Guernica, an imprint that for numerous years has been a pioneer in publishing writers and critical debates that could be characterized as productively supplementary to the mainstream. The collection includes an illuminating introduction from Vassanji and an interview with the editor, Asma Sayed, who is an exceedingly well-informed guide and interlocutor concerning the cultural and historical contexts of Vassanji’s work. She provides as well a very useful bibliography of works by and about Vassanji although his most recent book, And Home was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa (2014), is not included, which is testament to his astonishing productivity.

While Vassanji has been given numerous prizes (notably the Giller—twice), he has not been adequately studied in Canadian letters and it is surprising, for example, that he is shelved under African rather than Canadian literature at UBC. He has too often been essentialised (and dismissed) as embodying the ’in-between’ existence of the quintessentially rootless immigrant and this has served to paralyse rather than animate further analysis. In would be more accurate to suggest that he is a master of capturing the syncretic elements in global cultures and the complex loyalties and intertwining affiliations of the many whose travels take them across the world and whom represent as well worlds within themselves. Moving among Africa, India, and Canada, Vassanji is an erudite commentator on the parochial legacies of colonialism that still govern settler colonies such as Canada. This is particularly visible now when we have the ’bookends’ of his memoirs of travelling in India (A Place Within) as well as Africa (And Home was Kariakoo). With his sense that the creative writer must “bear witness; to give his or her place of life, a humanity, a status in the world . . . to go to a village and make a universe out of it,” Vassanji has undertaken this mission not only through his own work but as well in setting up TSAR (The Toronto South Asian Reviewnow The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing) to support the writers who slip through the inescapable institutional gate-keeping associated with national literatures.

Other essays by authors such as by Jonathan Rollins trace Vassanji’s counterpoint to a Canadian visuality based on the iconic legacy of a specious tabula rasa and terra nullius consolidated by the Group of Seven. Annie Cottier examines Vassanji’s literary cosmopolitanism in The Assassin’s Song, the first of his novels to be set in India. Amin Malak looks at Vassanji’s record as a postcolonial writer who draws attention to the legacies of German colonialism in Africa as well as to the Indian community’s complicity with slavery in Africa. In addition to the interview, a number of writers focus on Vassanji’s links with the syncretic Gujarati Khoja community that mixes Hindu and Muslim traditions. Such minglings are a much-needed antidote to the increasingly congealing binaries associated with belief systems in the world today. One hopes that this collection will be a catalyst for producing the overdue sustained scholarly research that Vassanji’s work deserves.

This review “Plural Singularities” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 185-86.

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